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Symposium spotlights Tribal resource management of water, fire

For the first time the Seminole Tribe of Florida hosted the National Indian Timber Symposium, which is in its 43rd year.

The Tribe hosted the event in conjunction with the Intertribal Timber Council – a Portland, Oregon-based organization that works with a host of groups on how best to manage natural resources in Indian Country.

About 240 people attended panels and workshops at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood for four days – June 10-13. Many spent the third day on a field trip to the Big Cypress Reservation to take part in various activities. (See related story)

The symposium brings together Tribal members, federal and state agencies, academics, industry professionals and others working in the natural resources arena.

Issues covered during the gathering included water and fire topics, contracting, funding opportunities and the recently passed federal farm bill.

Seminole Tribe employees Bonnie Willis and Grant Steelman played a large part in organizing the symposium. Willis is a wildland administrative assistant and Steelman is a forester and fire management officer. During the field day in Big Cypress, Seminole Tribe employees Michael Lightsey (Brighton) and Anthony Curella (Big Cypress) hosted guests.

Big Cypress Representative Joe Frank gave the opening invocation at the Hard Rock and welcomed attendees on the first day. He also spent time laying out the history of the Seminole Tribe from its beginnings to the present.

Symposium Chairman Howard Teasley Jr., of the Nez Perce Tribe, wildland firefighter Nate Cournoyer, wildland program field operations supervisors Tony Curella and Michael Lightsey discuss the challenges of managing the Big Cypress native area at Jones Grade Road. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

‘500 Years of Change’

The symposium’s theme – “500 Years of Change” – was chosen because it marks approximately how long ago the Spanish arrived in Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore near present day St. Augustine in 1513, historians estimate.

European exploration and colonization efforts would have an effect on the land, water and its people for generations to come.

The first symposium panel looked at hydrological issues – a big topic in Florida and on Seminole Tribal lands for many reasons, including toxic runoff from Lake Okeechobee that has caused issues on both coasts and across the state.

Research being done by the Tribe on the Big Cypress Reservation native area was used a case study on water quality initiatives.

The research is looking to detect and quantify microbes – bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and protozoa – in water samples on various areas of the Reservation.

Lisa Meday, of the Tribe’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD), presented her initial findings. The ERMD is tasked with protecting the Tribe’s water quality and implementing its water policies. It is responsible for the conservation of fish habitats, wildlife and culturally important plant life. The ERMD also protects the rights of Tribal members to perform traditional cultural practices.

The Tribe’s water codes and standards state that water must be free from any substance that causes injury to, or is toxic to, humans, wildlife, plants, fish or other aquatic life, among other measures.

Lisa Meday, Environmental Resource Management Department protection specialist for the Seminole Tribe, spoke during one of the presentations on water quality. (Photo Damon Scott)

The ERMD study is identifying whether potential new water from the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP) into the Big Cypress Reservation native area would threaten any of those standards.

“WERP has the potential to provide a new water supply to the Big Cypress Reservation to benefit the Tribe, however with the potential benefit comes potential for irreversible harm to plants and animals because the new water supply is agricultural runoff treated for phosphorus levels only,” Meday said.

She said that at a minimum the Tribe needs to know what is in the water supply before any measures are taken.
Meday is expecting a report by the end of September that will provide the results of the “aquatic diversity study.”

“[It] may conclude the Big Cypress Reservation native area isn’t supporting culturally important fish, wildlife or plant life; however we think that conclusion is strongly unlikely,” she said. “As we learn and document more about the water quality and what flora and fauna conditions are currently supported (without WERP) in this impracticable to access and highly diverse area, we can provide better information to Tribal leadership to protect the Tribe’s Big Cypress Reservation, environmental and water resources.”

Indigenous use of fire

If someone said you have to burn your way to cleaner air, would you believe it? That seemingly counterintuitive statement was posed to attendees at a final day workshop.

A panel of fire experts laid out how traditional Indigenous use of fire has been largely lost and ignored over the years, to the detriment of the environment.

Fire use affects Tribes in many different ways, from wildlife and fish programs, to water, infrastructure, jobs and the economy. There are also the more holistic effects of the spiritual and physical health of Tribal members.
The panel featured research on recognizing the Tribal worldview of allowing fire to take a more natural role on the landscape, instead of fire suppression at all costs.

Prescribed burns are a big part of the equation. Where prescribed burns are done successfully, panelist Mark A. Finney said, there are fewer devastating wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which was one of the biggest and deadliest on record.

Participants in the National Indian Timber Symposium get a close up view of timber buggies in Big Cypress on June 12. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, argued that much of the Indigenous knowledge regarding fire needs to be applied more broadly.
“Why are we experiencing the fires we have today? You can look to the past to see why we’re in it and how we can get out of it,” Finney said.

He said land use changes, including the cessation of Indian burning practices and the addition of clearing, agriculture, logging and slash burning – the “consequences of modern management” – have made the landscape ripe for large fires.

“Fire suppression became the dominant paradigm in the West,” Finney said. “Fire suppression efforts have not been successful in the past 100 years despite billions and billions of dollars and technology deployed. And the fires are different – they are crown fires instead of surface fires. We need to abandon the notion of control and technologic solutions and go back to what was working.”

A crown fire is a forest fire that spreads from treetop to treetop.

“Fires are the essential treatment to reduce fires and their severity,” he said.
The reason, he said, is that prescribed burns consume fuels other fires depend on and remove surface fuels that create crown fires.

“Indian Country can lead the way in fire natural resource management. Prescribed burns are higher in the east and wildfires are less. It’s the opposite in the west,” Finney said.

Tribal voices ‘need to be heard’

Gary S. Morishima, the natural resources technical adviser to the Quinault Indian Nation in the Pacific Northwest, said that fires were, and are, used by Native Americans to manage and transform the landscape positively.

“Europeans are still bringing disease and death to the New World, but this time it’s through fire suppression efforts,” he said.

Natives used fire in ethnobotany; to produce foods and medicines; for communication and soil health; and also to hunt, fish and even in war applications, he said.

Native people have burned grasslands in conjunction with bison herd movements near winter encampments; used wood ash to fertilize fields and crops; and have used it to clear areas for grass and wild seed production, as well as to clear out land for farming.

Stacy Myers, acting executive director of the Environmental Resource Management Department for the Seminole Tribe, Cecil Frost, landscape fire ecologist research collaborator at the University of North Carolina and Big Cypress Rep. Joe Frank sit on a panel during the first day of the symposium at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. (Photo Damon Scott)

“The voice of Indigenous peoples and tribes are needed today,” Morishima said. “Tribal voices need to be heard: listening and learning about fire and the relationship to the land and plants, animals and each other. The time is right for tribes to participate in solutions. Tribes are well positioned to make a difference.”

Steelman said the Seminole Tribe’s fire strategy – with most of its reservations below 40-foot elevation – is a little different than what’s done in the west, but there are similarities.

He said that Indigenous People in Florida have used fire for habitat management for thousands of years, but that roads, canals, and changing water flows in the state since the 1800s have had a profound effect.
The amount of sunlight hitting the ground has changed, as has the depth of the water table.

“We have to relate back to the predevelopment of farming and canals. Not prehuman, but predevelopment. We work with the Culture Department to learn the plant cycles, work with the water, work with the seasons, and don’t forget the ceremonies. You need to listen to the people of the land that you manage,” he said.

Steelman said the first Florida ranchers followed the tradition of the Native Indians who used fire to maintain the open nature of land and to promote the nutritious grasses that sprang up following the fires.

“We want to remember that a lot of what we’re doing scientifically already has a basis,” he said. “We set it and control where the smoke goes versus waiting. As we burn, smoke gets less.”

Steelman has overseen 709 prescribed burns on about 112,000 acres on Seminole Tribal land since 2010.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at